How UConn men's basketball coach Dan Hurley used break in the schedule: 'Rebuild the psyche'

CHICAGO — Dan Hurley was talking about his team in the past tense on Monday night.

"It was a great season ... so proud of how far (the team) has come in the short-term," he said.

Hurley was talking about the Cincinnati Bengals, the NFL team that he roots for.

"I'm confident we'll get our Super Bowl one day," Hurley predicted.

He wasn't talking about his UConn men's basketball team that way. There is still plenty of season left for the 24th-ranked Huskies, losers of six of their last eight games, to get back on track. They hope to start on Tuesday at Wintrust Arena against DePaul (8 p.m., FS1) .

"We're confident that we can get back to winning because of our culture and the pedigree of our players, the type of players we get," Hurley said. "They didn't come here on a transaction. They came here to be part of their transformation."

UConn fell to 16-6 overall, 5-6 in the Big East on Wednesday night after a crushing loss to Xavier at Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies fell behind early, 9-0, and trailed by as many as 17 points in the first half. They rallied to get within a point on four different occasions in the latter half, but ultimately fell short in an 82-79 loss.

"That was a tough loss, man," Hurley noted. "Losing at Gampel, where we don't lose very often. It was a real blow in what's been a tough stretch. We also got a chance to learn a hard lesson. We're tired of learning lessons, but you can't spot a very good team nine or 10 points at the start of a game and expect to win."

The five-day break between games came at a good time, according to Hurley.

"It's been a week of trying to rebuild the psyche," he said.

There were positives to take out of the Xavier loss. The second-half comeback was in part fueled by effective full-court pressure and zone defense. Hurley seemed to indicate UConn could play more of both, though he's not particularly enthused about the latter.

"My biggest concern is the defensive end of the court," he said. "Our man defense has gotten soft. Having to play as much zone as we did in the Xavier game was a little bit scary, especially in the second half. My teams have always hung their hat on being tough defensively. That's my biggest concern, that we've gotten soft defensively. Because I think offensively, we're going to come around."

Since UConn re-joined the Big East in the 2020-21 season, it has feasted on the weaker teams in the league and struggled against the better ones. In 2020-21, the Huskies were 2-6 against the teams that finished among the top five (excluding UConn) in the Big East. They went 9-0 against the bottom five.

Last season, UConn was 4-5 against the upper half of the league and 9-1 against the bottom half. This season, UConn is currently among the bottom half of the Big East. It is 1-5 against the top five teams and 4-1 against the bottom five.

That adds up to 7-16 against the upper echelon of Big East teams that past two-plus seasons, and 22-3 against the bottom dwellers.

At 3-8 in league play, DePaul is once again a bottom-dweller. But it's no pushover. The Blue Demons handed No. 16 Xavier its first league loss of the season a couple off weeks ago at Wintrust. Of course, they also became the first Big East team to lose to Georgetown in nearly two years last week.

"They were good enough to beat Xavier at home," Hurley said of the Blue Demons, who are 9-13 overall. "We don't get caught off-guard. If anything, most of them want to do well too badly for us. We didn't lie to them or cheat for them to get them to come here. It wasn't transactional. They're treating the DePaul game tomorrow like it's there chance to go to the Final Four. We're desperate to get a win."

Rim rattlings

Samson Johnson made his return to the floor in a Jan. 22 blowout win over Butler, notching two points and two rebounds in six minutes, his first game action since suffering a right foot stress reaction in UConn's season-opener on Nov. 7. But the way the Xavier game played out, with UConn falling behind by a big margin early, prevented Hurley from getting Johnson any run on Wednesday.

"The hope (was0 that, as a sophomore, that he'd have the runway of that non-conference slate to prepare him for these real hard, Big East games," Hurley noted. "These games are not played like non-conference or NCAA tournament games. These games are brawls."

The coach is hoping that, moving forward, Johnson can comfortably get back into the regular rotation. @DaveBorges